Many of my colleagues represent constituencies where alcohol creates frequent and recurring problems for local communities. Ealing and Acton certainly has its fair share of drink issues – often centred on young people getting seriously drunk and indulging in anti-social behaviour ranging from noise, to property damage and violence.
I’m in favour of tougher enforcement and am encouraged by new measures like the late night levy in the Government’s Alcohol Strategy. I also think we need to revisit some of our local planning rules on late night licensing and supermarket opening hours, because much of the anti-social behaviour that blights neighbourhoods and town centres is fuelled by easy access to liquor, late at night.
I am not at all clear, though, that the introduction of minimum pricing of alcohol units is going to do the trick. I can see the attraction – curbing the purchase of alcohol by making it more expensive sounds easy. But do we really believe that upping the price of a can of lager or a bottle of cheap cider will deter a gang of people who are out late at night with the sole intention of getting bladdered? Surely they’ll just find other ways around this? The facts bear this out. Minimum pricing advocates look to a University of Sheffield report to back up their claims. According to its claims, the 6% fall in consumption between 2004 and 2008 should have resulted in around 20,000 fewer alcohol-related admissions in 2008 alone. In fact, official figures show a rise in admissions of over 300,000 in that period.
Isn't there a possibility too that the black market will thrive even more? For "problem drinkers", already failing to confront their addiction, won't they still find any means they can to continue their habit? These are the people the proposed policy is aimed at. I’m not convinced it will work.
What concerns me just as much is that many more civilised, responsible citizens will also find themselves being punished for the behaviour of the drunks. While they have always enjoyed the odd tipple here and there – or even a bottle of wine over dinner – they have harmed nobody. They have simply, and quite legally, indulged their desire for an alcoholic drink without causing any trouble. Now they stand to be hit in their pockets and many will find this hard to take. The elderly, those on low incomes – these are the people who are going to find it suddenly much more expensive to enjoy their favourite drop, perhaps to the point where they actually cannot afford it any longer and so have to cut right back or even cut it out altogether. This is grossly unfair.
It is surely profoundly un-Conservative to make everyone pay for the sins of some. We need a better way forward. As ever, education must be at the heart of this – we’ll only get somewhere by properly communicating the dangers of drinking to excess. There are lots of initiatives targeted at young people and families, but we could be doing more.
And we need proper enforcement of the Law that already exists. Under the Licensing Act of 2003, it is an offence to knowingly serve alcohol to anyone who is clearly intoxicated. If this is the case, how is it possible that preloading is such a common problem? If someone goes out already drunk, surely no-one should be serving them alcohol over a shop counter or over a bar? In 2010, there were only three convictions for this. We need to look at how local police forces deploy resources to enforce the law, how dispersal orders are used and how town halls can play their part by restricting the number of licensed premises in concentrated areas.
A couple of final thoughts. Between 2005 and 2011, alcohol consumption fell by 20% and, at time when it is necessary for the Treasury to seek almost every source of revenue, does it really make sense to cut a vital revenue stream? More practically, even as this policy is being widely trailed, the Government’s lawyers are hard at work with their Scottish counterparts trying to establish the legality of the proposal as well as get to the bottom of whether it’s even been effective north of the border. Surely an analysis of the responses to the Home Office’s consultation can only take place alongside a thorough assessment of the policy’s impact in Scotland since its introduction earlier this year? This will take time.